Encounters at the End of the World (****)
Few directors could get away with making a film like Encounters at the End of the World, and Werner Herzog is one of them. The documentary is a lot like his others: a cinematic logbook, this time about his journey to Antarctica. It rests on Herzog’s cultivated Teutonic persona, expressed in a voice-over narration that makes everything he presents seem both fallacious and fascinating.
Encounters begins at McMurdo Station, which Herzog likens to “an ugly mining town” (“Of course, I did not expect pristine landscapes and man living in blissful harmony with fluffy penguins,” he asserts). He is eager to escape it, but first interviews some people who seem to typify the Antarctic character: placeless, unassuming, but insatiably inquisitive. After a stint at a bizarre wilderness awareness session (for which participants are made to place buckets over their heads in a simulation of a whiteout), he and his cameraman head outward to meet with scientists and researchers. Here is where Encounters takes off, with stunning underwater images, and a final encounter at Mount Erebus, a massive, active volcano.
Through it all it is apparent that Herzog is looking—or, rather, hunting—for elements in this setting that accord with his overarching themes: the amoral, catastrophic qualities of nature, and the decadence of the human species. He finds them, and states them with an almost derisory gravity; who wouldn’t chuckle at hearing him ask, “Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?” Yet he tends to deliver on what might only be jokes. Minutes later he is filming a penguin that appears to be fleeing the flock in a mad frenzy, toward certain death. One feels satisfied with this existential oddity, however exaggerated it may be. Encounters wouldn’t be a Herzog film without it.
Encounters at the End of the World is now playing at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St.).